This is a story about a frog

Back when I was in fourth or fifth grade, we had a science project in which we built terrariums out of two-liter soda bottles and then filled them with insects and fish and small animals. I chose frogs and crickets. The frogs were placed in water in the top half of the terrarium, the crickets in dirt on the bottom. One day, I came back from lunch and placed one of my spiral BBQ Fritos in the bottom half thinking the crickets would eat it, but it didn’t and instead just slowly grew white fur over a period of weeks and then the crickets died, probably of starvation.

But my frogs stayed alive and I got to take one home with me on the school bus in a Tupperware container. The ride was bumpy, and multiple times I almost lost my grip on the plastic and dropped it on the floor to bust open, letting the frog escape. But I eventually made it to the bus stop, and my mom was there waiting for me, and we brought it into the house.

Its new home was a tank in my room that I never cleaned. This was back when I was somehow even more of a slob than I am now (I was a severely emotionally-compromised adolescent) and my parents wouldn’t dare set foot in my room due to the potential health hazards, let alone stress about whether the frog’s tank was clean. I fed it these brown, spherical food pellets that smelled like old rainwater. I covered it in Jesus stickers because what the hell else was I going to do with Jesus stickers?

This, apparently.

The damn thing held onto its tortured little life for around four years, and to this day, I don’t understand how. I don’t think I fed it enough. In fact, in one of my old journals, I found a list of resolutions for my spring break (even in middle school I guess I knew I needed to take some concrete steps to get my shabby-ass life together) and one of my promises to myself was to remember to feed Froggy every day.

Froggy wasn’t really its name so much as what I called it when I had to call it something. Froggy, for all of the importance it would accrue in the coming years, didn’t really have a name. That alone was very out of character for me and even now I can’t imagine having a pet without naming it but I guess it just never came up.

I took pre-algebra in seventh grade, and I for a portion of the year, I sat between this girl Leah and this guy she liked named Evan. Every day, Leah and Evan would pass each other notes and I would sit in the middle pretending that they wanted me to be involved in whatever Thing they had going on. Sometimes Leah and I would have our own private conversations as well via note-passing, and this is how one of the most pivotal dramas of my youth took hold.

Leah and I would often pass notes about Evan and how cute she thought he was. Looking back, this was not an advisable move because I literally sat right next to him and it would have been easy for him to intercept our correspondence and the whole secret would blow up. Which is exactly what happened, except when he asked which one of us liked him, I did something strange.

I said it was me.

Though I suppose I mostly wanted to protect Leah, I hesitate to say that this was a completely selfless act on my part because I was starting to like him, too. I think this is how every single crush I had into my late teens transpired. You spend enough time with someone and someone plants the seed that they might be attractive or cool or otherwise appealing and then all it takes is time and the correct conditions to make funny feelings boil up. We were all just sitting in a crucible waiting for some hormone-induced reaction to set in.

He told me he would “think about it.” It was unclear what he was going to think about. Nobody I knew at age 12 and 13 actually thought they were going to go on serious dates with the people they liked, or have a serious relationship. We were quite obviously too young for meaningful relationships (I suppose this is debatable but I don’t care to debate it) and didn’t have the capital or autonomy to make an honest attempt. For the most part, myself and the other middle schoolers I knew confessed our feelings to each other only because we couldn’t help it, or were hungry for the validation a mutual crush would provide. What he was “thinking about” was something more nebulous than whether I was worth seeing a movie with.

After a few days of thinking, the answer was, predictably, a resounding no. He said something along the lines of, “I tried to make myself like you but I couldn’t,” which somehow felt worse to me than an honest rejection.

I don’t know how we transitioned into what I remember when I remember us: a relationship I would best describe as some non-love non-friendship commitment to symbiotic angst. I think it started on AIM, a place where people back then seemed to find themselves at their most vulnerable and least beholden to social protocol. It was somewhere we could both talk and be honest without his friends knowing he was wasting his time on such an ugly girl.

This is not self-deprecation.

This is not me exaggerating the truth to fit some narrative in which the world hates me as much as I hate myself. The main tenets of our relationship to each other were silence and shame. Silence because I wasn’t a cool or appealing person to have as a friend and certainly not worth showing off to his shallow, puberty-brain dude friends, and shame because despite this he couldn’t stop himself from talking to me and needing something from me. Silence because in the moments I dared to acknowledge in public that we knew and cared about each other, I was ridiculed for being a crazy, lying, stalker, and shame because when you’re 12 and 13 years old, what people call you is the closest thing you can grasp to what you are.

I think a lot of my friends thought deep down that I actually was this obsessive stalker type who wouldn’t leave this guy alone, and I don’t blame them because he was ruthless in his attempt to omit any evidence of our (quite intimate) friendship from his public presence. One time in homeroom I tried continuing a conversation we’d had online the night before (it was probably about Twilight because he secretly enjoyed that too 🙂 )  and he laughed at me in front of his friends and called me “the chicken from Chicken Run” because I have a big nose and because middle school boys are totally unoriginal. For some reason, I wasn’t known as The Girl Who Is Getting Relentlessly Bullied By A Boy She Likes but as That Creepy Stalker Who Won’t Leave Evan Alone.

And this continued into late middle school and even high school, when everyone was super Wary about me ever having feelings for anyone and generally made me feel like shit about myself. Maybe some other time I’ll tell you the fun story about me being accused of literally stalking some guy in my homeroom to the degree that I had his parents’ license plate numbers memorized. I was called down to the principal’s office, and so was Evan, who vouched for my accuser, and I could barely convince them I wasn’t guilty. Ah, youth.

(It should be noted that this is part of the reason I got really into feminist ideas at that age: they provided an explanation for the pattern of “girl is reasonably upset by a guy’s behavior, guy calls her Crazy, social consensus is that guy is right despite their witness of his horribly uncool behavior” that defined my life and my social relationships when I was young. But, like the title says, this is a story about a frog.)

This ongoing emotional hemorrhage continued into eighth grade, when our relationship got more intense and emotionally draining as I masochistically set Evan up with a girl he liked and helped him pick out gifts for her. When she broke up with him, I let him perform a song he wrote about her at my birthday party. One night, I got especially dolled-up for a school dance at which Evan predictably ignored me, only to receive a text message from him at the end of the night stating that I might be pretty (enough for him) if I wore “just a little more makeup.”

Around this time, it started to become a running gag that Froggy wouldn’t die no matter how horribly I cared for it. This flawlessly paralleled this horrible “friendship” with Evan that also, despite its opposition, lived pitifully on for an absurdly long amount of time with no reasonable end in sight.

Seeing this, and probably also kind of making a joke about how Evan and I would never end up together, my friend Marie, who was a lot like me in that she enjoyed coming up with in-depth mythology and narratives to explain the absurdity of teen/pre-teen life, made an important prophecy:

When (if?) the frog died, Evan would ask me out.

Surely a testament to how normal our relationshit had become by that point, he of course knew about this prophecy and thought it was hilarious for reasons that are, to this day, murky at best. Did he think it was funny because of how undateable I was or how immortal the frog seemed? Perhaps it was that the whole situation created some sort of empathetic impasse: the frog was never going to die and as such, he would never have to either ask me out or feel bad for being complicit in what was, in retrospect, a sort of cruel joke propagated by my best friend about my total lack of appeal.

But the world turns regardless of childhood cruelty and twelve-year-old gawkiness, and so the frog did die eventually. The event passed rather unceremoniously, considering how much time had been spent anticipating it. I had been organizing my desk or some other random chore when I noticed that it wasn’t moving. This was usual, so I flicked the glass, thinking it would do its usual wake-up-and-dart-around-the-tank routine, only this time it didn’t. This was rare, but it’s been known to happen, so I began my second-tier intervention: pushing the tank back and forth a few inches across the desk hoping to jostle it awake. No movement.

I didn’t really cry because it wouldn’t make sense to cry about a pet I didn’t name and, thanks to everything I just explained, whose death I’d been lowkey anticipating for around a year. Instead I called Evan. Was I expecting him to feel sorry for me, or to hold up his end of the deal? I can’t really say. I think I just wanted him to know.

We stayed on the phone in silence for a really long time. I remember sitting on the floor against my desk where Froggy’s tank sat and silently sobbing, waiting for him to speak.

I’m not sure which one of us broke the conversational stalemate. I remember only my pounding heart and the both of us exchanging words in low voices. He agreed to fulfill the “prophecy.” In other words, he asked me out.

I was thrilled.

The whole situation was ridiculous yet addictive, the same way that all of our encounters were. Utterly inexperienced with matters of the heart, we were incapable of properly expressing ourselves and instead resorted to rehashing banter and dialogue from books, movies, and worst of all, romance anime. This meant that every time we laughed, cried, fought, or even ignored each other, it felt like we were in a movie. I lived for that shit, thought we were in the midst of something so much more mature and passionate than other kids our age.

It wasn’t passion; it was, at best, sophisticated roleplay. But we were fourteen. All I cared about was that the guy I pursued and endured for a year and a half (which is, like, two decades in middle school time) finally had come to his senses and was willing to “go out” with me, whatever that would have meant. Who cares if a prophecy and a dead amphibian were what obligated him to do it?

It was a damn good half hour of elation, and then he called me back saying he changed his mind. Then, it was a damn good week of misery.

This would happen again a few more times before we entered high school. On one occasion, after mandating that we cut all contact for a few months, he would text me at three in the morning telling me to listen to “I Thought She Knew” by N*SYNC before confessing his love to me and then, once again, letting me down easy the next morning. Every time, I would believe it. Every time, I would come back.

I was many months into my first actual relationship in high school before I was able to admit to myself that maybe Evan and I weren’t meant to be. That it was never really love, just out-of-control mental illness or Stockholm Syndrome or a narrative I’d weaved myself in an effort to repress how isolated and hideous the constant bullying made me feel.

We still talk on occasion, and he has, of course, apologized numerous times for what he put me through. Sometimes, it’s easy for me to be forgiving, and sometimes, old resentment starts to bubble up. We were just kids then; it was all frivolous role play, and we were still growing into ourselves. But those frivolous childhood blunders had a profound effect on the neuroses I developed as I crossed into adulthood, the self-deprecation, the obsessions, and my pre-disposition to toxic friendships.

I’ve never spoken about this with anyone in much depth, but my hunch is that everyone’s childhood is filled with stories of this sort. Even the most well-adjusted people have skeletons in their closet that whisper to them from decades in the past but look like harmless coat hangers to everybody else.  I know it looks uncool and immature when I reference events from 2007 among those that still gnaw at my self-esteem from time to time, but I see parallels in many of the other unsavory encounters I’ve had since, especially with men. Reconciling those old ghosts and learning how to “move on” without forgetting to the extent that I fall back into the same patterns is my white whale.

This is a story about a frog, though. like I said, so I won’t leave you guys hanging.

The burial was as ceremonial as everything before and after.

Marie, Evan, and I had decided that Froggy was too symbolic to simply be flushed down the toilet, so I fished his corpse out of the murky water, sealed him in multiple containers and a small shoebox, and kept this makeshift casket inside my locker for the entire school day. When the bell rang, the three of us met up and trekked through the woods behind the school a while, wandering significantly off of the trail. We buried Froggy there, a couple inches underground, and marked the spot with a piece of bamboo Marie had found on our hike. The idea was that we would return eventually, see how much the bamboo had grown over time.

We never found it.

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